In 1989, Tuira Kayapó sent a clear message that caught the attention of millions around the world. She brandished her machete in the face of a government official who was trying to convince indigenous leaders to accept a mega-dam project in the Amazon. Tuira slid the dull side of the machete across his cheeks and made it clear that damming the Xingu river would mean a declaration of war by the Kayapo. The footage showing her audacity and defiance was a powerful message that undermined support for the project.

Photo: Potássio Nēne/Estadao Contuendo 1989

The fight against the dam was led by the Kayapo indigenous people and local activists and began as soon as it was first proposed in 1975. The first phase of resistance culminated in 1989 when the Kayapo staged an impressive protest in Altamira. During the protests, Tuira spoke with the pride and the audacity the Kayapo are known for: 

Electricity won’t give us food. We need the rivers to flow freely. Don’t talk to us about relieving our ‘poverty’ – we are the richest people in Brazil. We are Indians.”

(See “Adios Amazonia?” in the ecologist, Vol 19 No 2, March/April 1989)

The Kayapo stood united and won the battle. Their defiance was instrumental in convincing the World Bank to withdraw funding.

But they lost the war

A few years later the Altamira hydro dam project on the Xingu River arose again and so indigenous resistance continued. In 2010, after two decades of petitions, protests in Brazil and around the world, as well as multiple court hearings, the construction of the Belo Monte dam at Altamira was approved under president Lula. In a letter to the President, Kayapó leaders said:

‘We don’t want this dam to destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia and which we can still preserve’. – source

Cacique Raoni holding his petition against Belo Monte in Paris 2011, Photo : Gert-Peter Bruch

Cacique Raoni traveled to Paris in 2011 to raise international awareness about the threats facing the survival of indigenous people and the Amazon forest in Brazil including the dam.

As it’s most often the case, economic interests prevail over human rights, the environment, and the opinions of scientists. The third biggest dam in the world was built in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, on the wild Xingu river. After pouring 3 million cubic meters of concrete and diverting most of Xingu’s flow through its turbines, the dam flooded 500km2 of rainforest and displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people. Nicknamed “Belo Monstro” (The Beautiful Monster) the dam has exacted an array of devastating consequences for the regional and global environment, for the local population. 

Flood and drought

The Xingu River forms a major aquatic ecosystem that enriches the forest ecosystem it flows through for some 1,700 km. The river is home to innumerable aquatic species adapted to dramatic natural fluctuations in water level and unique to the region. 

Inevitably, dam construction was going to have a serious environmental cost. Yet, the damage goes far beyond the flooding, In fact, the government advertised a reduction in flooding of indigenous lands from 1200 to 500 km2 under a new design. But reduced flooding did not protect these lands from destruction.

Belo Monte takes advantage of a large bend in the Xingu River by creating a shortcut in water flow to flow to the turbines on the other side of the bend. The dam didn’t flood the land of the Yudjá tribe, (meaning: the people of the river), it dried it out.

The ecological balance of the river is disrupted by the low water flow caused by the dam and the retention of nutrients and sediments as well as the blockage of fish migration. In February 2021, the operator of the dam received permission to reduce the flow through the Big Bend (Volta Grande) of the Xingu for an entire year down to only 13% leading to severe consequences for the ecology and traditional peoples living along the Xingu.

This image from the Earth Observation Unit of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) illustrates the diversion of the Xingu River into a man-made channel (at center), resulting in lower water levels in the Big Bend (pictured on the right in red). Photo credit: Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA. Source: mongbay

Many fish species such as the plant-eating piranha; endangered white-cheeked spider monkey; and threatened turtle species such as the Arrau River turtle lost their breeding grounds. Fishing communities have been devastated by the decline of fish and turtle populations.

,Arrau River turtle, Photo: Wilfredor

“The Volta Grande will turn into a cemetery. A cemetery of fish, a cemetery of dead trees,” Bel Juruna, of the Juruna (Yudjá) Indigenous people quoted by mongbay

Not a ‘green’ energy source

Hydropower is still regarded as a renewable energy source, but dams do emit greenhouse gases. Plant matter, initially trapped under the water or later brought into the reservoir by the currents, results in the emission of significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Dams in tropical regions have the highest emissions, due to deforestation and methane production. Researchers estimate that 83% of methane emissions of all dams occurred within tropical climate zones.

The growth of algae is another major issue. During the dry season when reservoir levels are low, algal blooms harm many aquatic species. The retention of sediments and nutrients and the low oxygen environment at the bottom of the reservoir causes the transformation of mercury, naturally present in the soil to a poisonous form, damaging the environment and the local communities. 

The displacement of indigenous people and the destruction of their livelihood also have direct environmental consequences. The construction of roads and the influx of workers have impacted the entire region surrounding Belo Monte, with deforestation levels soaring throughout several indigenous territories. Without its indigenous guardians, the rainforest is far more likely to fall prey to the ever-expanding beef and logging industries. 

Hydropower development in the tropics is anything but green.. The negative impacts on in biodiverse forests and  pristine riverine ecosystems are similar. 

The final bill is not yet in

The construction of the dam cost 18 billion dollars and was supposed to massively boost Brazil’s energy production. In reality, the externalities it created will likely never be repaid with the underwhelming amount of electricity it produces.

The turbines were built to generate up to 11.000 MW per month, but they never came close to this figure, even during the high water rainy season.  The mid to upper Xingu River flows through a region that experiences a strong 4-5 month annual dry season which is increasingly exacerbated by climate change and deforestation. The Xingu just doesn’t have enough water to generate the power promised by dam supporters. This overestimation of Xingu’s flow and impact of drastic seasonal water level fluctuation was repeatedly highlighted by environmentalists. The maximum power generated in a month never surpassed 7000 MW, while during the low water dry season this figure averages a meager 540 MW.

 The Destruction of Traditional Communities 

The impact of the Belo Monte dam on the indigenous and other traditional forest people (descendants of rubber tappers) of the region was devastating. It’s a process repeated across the Amazon where infrastructure projects, mining, logging, and ranching spread into primary forest. As well as devastation of natural ecosystems, with roads and machines, comes disease, alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, to communities without experience with these foreign social ills. The city of Altamira, located close to the dam construction site, saw its murder rate increase by 147%, making it the deadliest city on Earth in 2015.

The promises of economic opportunities for displaced indigenous people quickly reveal their emptiness. Outside the forest indigenous people are thrown into a world they do not understand and are ill-prepared to navigate. Their knowledge, skills, culture, and identity are tied to the forest, and without it, they are left impoverished and alienated.

“I had a better life than anyone in São Paulo.  If I wanted to work my land, I did. If I didn’t, the land would be there the next day. If I wanted to fish, I did, but if I’d rather pick açaí, I did. I had a river, I had woods, I had tranquility. On the island, I didn’t have any doors. I had a place … And on the island, we didn’t get sick.” – an indigenous man speaks about the effect the dam has had on his life. His story is the norm for displaced indigenous peoples.

Indigenous fishing communities rely on the health of the riverine ecosystem for their survival. Photo: Martin Schoeller

It’s impossible to calculate the real cost of the dam, as ecological and social externalities keep rising. Once the forest is cut there is no going back. The damage cannot be undone, rainforests take a long time to recover if ever, and in any case much longer than we can afford. Brazil and the Amazon region are the first victims of the destruction of the rainforest. While companies and elites are cashing-in quick profits, the bill they leave will continue to be paid by everybody else. Most projects involving massive environmental destruction are sold to the public based on exaggerations, denial, and lies. The international community and civil society should remain vigilant and organized. 

Bigger than the monster 

Hydropower development is far from being the only threat to this unique riverine ecosystem: predatory fishing, logging, mining, farming, and cattle ranching all pose a deadly threat to the fine ecological balance in which countless species have evolved for millennia. Belo Monte is one of many gruesome examples where short-term economic development prevailed over the efforts of indigenous peoples and activists.

The early victory of the Kayapo time, but in the end industry won. A powerful image such as a Kayapo woman, Tuira, holding a machete to the face of a government official can galvanize the world’s attention for a moment, but the struggle between the indigenous cultures and capitalism cannot be won by indigenous people on their own.

A 2019 photo of Tuira Kayapo by katie_maehler

World leaders have pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, but we cannot afford to wait to see if they implement their promises. We should learn from past mistakes and find ways to support indigenous peoples across the globe, for they are defending our common future.

The Belo Monte dam didn’t flood or dry out Kayapo land, goldminers, loggers, and farmers are kept at bay. The Kayapo remain unconquered. They fought for their rights and earned ratification of their traditional territories forty years ago. They remain unconquered and continue to protect their vast forested territory through alliances with environmental NGOs which provide the tools to meet the threats of the 21st century.

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